Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day 58: Going Home

January 11, 2011

Pat and Doug are the volunteer camp hosts at the Stirling Range campground. Looking not quite retirement age, they’ve been doing the rounds of Australian National Parks for the past four years. They live out of their caravan and do one and two month stints to relieve park rangers wherever they’re needed. It’s a lifestyle and they love it. “Don’t you miss having a home?” Johan enquires. They both shake their heads empathically. They have a house somewhere in New South Wales but it’s rented out and they’re happy to continue with their nomadic existence for as long as it feels right.

We contemplate the reality of this. Home beckons, but the nostalgia of our own nomadic life over the past two months leaves us fantasizing over a number of other detour alternatives before we head home. Nah, we sigh, it’s all got to end sometime. The party’s over – time to go home.

As we head up the Albany Highway we listen to the ABC news radio. The floods in Queensland have worsened. Toowoomba, just west of Brisbane, received massive flash floods yesterday and eight people have died, many more injured and thousands of homes evacuated. Thousands more are in danger of imminent floods in Ipswich and Brisbane – and the rain goes on. The whole southeast corner of Queensland down to the northeast corner of New South Wales – the areas we passed through only a few weeks ago – are in acute crisis. Some are calling it an inland tsunami.

Meanwhile back home, 30kms north of Pamelup, a raging bush fire has destroyed four homes and burned thousands of hectares. The drought in the West continues and rural areas are on red alert.

These foreboding reports only add to our pensive moods as we sieve through the memories of our trip. It’s a land of extreme contrasts, says one reporter and I couldn’t agree more. We got parched in the red centre, drenched in the lush eastern seaboard, struck by the awesome beauty of the land, stung by the environmental degradation imposed on it by the modern world, and captivated by the rich history of this island continent, as expressed in both geological time and the intuitive stories of our indigenous people – two opposing world views that often seemed to compliment and enrich each other. This was our trip around Australia.

Tonight we will sleep in rooms with solid walls, in beds with familiar smells and wake to the familiar warbles of our local birds. Our journey has come to an end. Someone recently called it an ‘epic journey’. That’s probably grander than I’d say, but then maybe once you’ve done something, it’s never as marvelous as it once seemed when you only dreamed of doing it. The ‘trip around Australia’ is an enduring dream in the hearts and minds of Australians, and even some hardy foreigners. Perhaps what made ours unique was that our ‘trip around’ was actually a ‘figure 8’, cutting twice through the heart of this intense red continent. This is where the Aboriginal Dreamtime comes most alive – and possibly where the western mind comes most unhinged. It’s an empty, lonely, beautiful space – not to be missed if you can handle the hardships.

We suspect that one day the Great Central Road will be paved and that long, lonely, dusty red route may possibly become just another overrun tourist attraction, with derelict roadhouses turning into suave coffee houses, air-conditioned resorts and holiday parks taking over from the bush camps that nowadays materialize wherever you want to create one. We’re glad we could do it when it was so rustic and tough and unregulated. Because the only way to know a land is to be on the land. Feeling the pulse of it in the still silence of a moonless, starlit night where the nearest point of modern civilization, with all its security and comforts, may be hundreds of miles away. It’s no wonder that it’s the Aboriginal people, with their curious way of seeing things, who are the only ones game enough to live out there.

As we turn into the winding dirt lane that leads to Pamelup, the place we’ve called home for thirteen years, we’re struck by conflicting emotions. So good to be home – especially this home, which we crafted with our own hands and imaginations. But we realize another journey, an even bigger adventure, lies ahead of us: moving to the USA. The next few months will be spent planning, packing and organizing ourselves for that big shift -- a journey that could well be of epic proportions.

And so our story continues…

The travelers back home again

Monday, January 10, 2011

Day 57: Stirling Climbs

January 10, 2011

This latest diversion has made a marked improvement on our moods. We both seem more content, gentler with each other. The 6AM morning light through the thin veil of gum trees to the surrounding peaks has a further balming effect. Suddenly we want nothing more than to stay put.

The Stirling Ranges are not only spectacular to look at – they are a pocket of dense biodiversity that is rare on the planet. 150 species of birds, and 1500 plants are found in the park, including 80 species not found anywhere else in the world. A billion years ago the range used to be a shallow sea and evidence of the rippling water has been fossilized in many of the rock formations in the higher peaks. As the Australian continental plate drifted into its neighboring plates, the land buckled and up went the Stirlings, an anomaly in this otherwise flat landscape. This amazing history is all the more evident from high up, which is why, I suppose, all the hikes in the park are climbs!

The beautiful morning has worked its magic on us and we decide to stay another night -- which gives me the opportunity to hike Bluff Knoll. Though it is 43 meters higher than Toolbrunup, it’s rated a Level 4 hike; still a challenge, but not as steep as yesterday’s trek. With an early 9am start, the west side of the mountain is still in shade, providing a pleasantly cool hike up. It’s a much more scenic hike with a stunning array of flora, protruding rock formations and spectacular views.

Coming from behind the summit, you can understand where the knoll gets its name. The slow angular trek up its spine through alpine-like meadows ends abruptly with a sheer drop, 640 meters back to the carpark. I lay flat on my belly and look straight down. Try as I may to outwit my brain I can’t lose that bottoming out feeling in my gut, an irrational fear that I’ll be pulled over the edge to my death.

I spot Johan in the carpark through my binoculars and ring to tell him I’m on the top. He gets out his binocs but can’t spot me until I stand up and wave my arms, a feat I only just manage before collapsing to safety on a rock seat behind me.

What takes an hour and three quarters to ascend only takes an hour to come down. By noon I’m tired and hungry so we drive down to the Bluff Knoll Café and buy ourselves lunch. The lovely, relatively new café is for sale – at an awesomely cheap price. We ask the rotund owner with his long grey beard why he’s selling. “I’m not good at the moment,” he winces, and proceeds to tell us about his three surgeries to fix his bad back, which at one stage had left him almost a paraplegic. Each surgery has helped, but the benefit is only temporary and he’s on his way down again. On top of that, he lost his wife, age 53, to lung cancer only a short while ago. He must be running their business on his own.

I’m ready to pull out my cheque book and pay the man the measly amount he’s asking for his four-bedroom home on 17 acres with the roadside business thrown in. At $410,000 it would take you twice that to build it up yourself. Yet this man, despite the furrow in his brow, is wonderfully cheerful and treats us with a cordiality not often found in small business owners these days.

But of course we have our own real estate to sell, which doesn’t seem to be moving any faster than this poor man’s. We get a voice mail message from our agent, who held a home open at Pamelup yesterday afternoon, and get the now-familiar message: no one interested. Seems we’re all shackled by our material wealth and physical limitations. But somehow we both feel less grouchy about our own situation after hearing this man’s story. We wish him all the best and offer a kind smile as we depart.

Bluff Knoll in the morning light

View from the top back to Mt Toolbrunup (pointy peak on the left)

I love mountain climbing -- but don't do well with heights

Spectacular flora diversity

Lunch at Bluff Knoll Cafe

Day 56: Detour!

January 9, 2011

I’m just finishing up what is meant to be our last blog entry when Johan points to the southern horizon. ‘Look, how pretty.”

I look. It is pretty! “Must be the Stirling Ranges,” I muse.

“No, probably the range in the Franklin River National Park,” he counters.

“Huh, uh,” I say, pulling out the map. “We’re past that park. See…” I point to the map for him to look at while he’s driving. “We’re right over the top of the Stirlings.”

There’s some mystical pull these ranges have on Johan. Me too maybe. We both lived in Albany many years back, but in his youth Johan had a tendency to disappear to the mountains on occasion, and then on up the mountains. He climbed Bluff Knoll, its tallest peak, four, maybe five times. He can’t remember exactly.

“Maybe we should take an extra night,” one of us quips, can’t remember which. But it’s on both of our minds. We resolve to spend the next 23kms thinking about it. That’s when we’ll hit the turn-off to go south.

When we arrive at the turn-off to Borden, it doesn’t take much debate. We fill up with fuel and head down Chester Pass Road, straight into the heart of the Stirlings. Australia doesn’t have many mountains so when it does produce some, they’re quite awe-inspiring. The Stirlings are no exception. They remind me of pointy-capped hills I saw in China once, draped with a carpet of green and exuding some other-worldly quality that makes you want to linger a bit.

The one and only campground in the park is a short ring around half a dozen campsites, all pretty rustic but pleasantly groomed and a terrific view of the ranges. There are a few campers milling about and only one site available that would fit our camper trailer. “Perhaps we should...” I suggest. A truck-size 4WD with a hooted-up version of our camper trailer has pulled up behind us, seems to want us to move on. Johan looks in his rear-view mirror and puts it in reverse, deftly backing the trailer into position in the one available site. The rearview campers throw up their hands as they drive by, half in jest, half in disgust that we’ve taken the one spot they had their eye on.

It must be fate. Or maybe just good luck. It’s a wonderful spot and a nice place to do what we never got around to doing the last days of our trip: chill out for a bit. We eat lunch at our picnic table then drive up to the nearby trail head at Mt Toolbrunup. This is the second tallest peak in the park (1052 meters) and rated a Level 5 classification – pretty strenuous.

And it is. A week of sitting in the car with little hiking activity has softened me somewhat and it takes all I’ve got to get up that mountain, especially the last hundred meters which require some near vertical rock-scrambling. But the view is dizzying – all the way around the park to the farmlands and empty salt lakes beyond. The summit is nothing more than a few square meters of giant rubble and my stomach does flip-flops taking in this birds-eye view.

Coming down the mountain doesn’t work the lungs as much, but my legs are shaking and my toes smarting as they’re rammed up against the tips of my shoes. I’m glad to walk the near-level 4kms dirt road back to camp to sort out my quivering legs.

Mt Toolbrunup (the pointy peak on the left)

Views from the top

Windy at the top - hold on!

Exotic wildflowers; they felt like paper

Stirling Range campground

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Day 55: Esperence and the Southern Coast

January 8, 2011

When I was working last year and idly planning my eight weeks paid leave, the plan was to spend a couple of those weeks in Esperence during the January holidays. Cape La Grande and Cape Arid National Parks, to the east of the town, offer some of the most spectacular turquoise water and white sand beaches in Australia and some excellent hiking possibilities. If we’d stayed with that plan, the long awaited thrill of time off work and a great holiday destination would have filled us with unbounded pleasure.

But after two months on the road and the view of home coming onto our horizon, our enthusiasm for this last stint of our holiday is in short supply. My dad sums it up nicely in an email I receive from his this morning: “Isn't it funny how trip-ends are often on the down side? All the enthusiasm has leaked out and tiredness/disorder/dirtiness has sneaked in.”

Spot on. As we travel south to Esperence, I organize the photos we’ve taken on this trip, discarding the rejects, renaming those worth saving. Memories of the many places we traveled through flit through my mind and emotions. But mostly what I see in these photos is enthusiasm, a bottomless well of energy to take on a new day of travel and discovery. Now it seems we have to push ourselves to find the motivation for this last chapter of our holidays.

“I remember how many times I was ready to get home before the planned time,” Dad continues. Yes, lately we’re opting for stacking up the miles rather than progressing at a leisurely pace and stopping at all the spots of interest. The lure of home and all its comforts plays in our imaginations.

But still, it could be the last opportunity to enjoy what Esperence and its national parks have to offer – perhaps we should leave it fate. It’s sunny and pleasantly warm when we cruise into Esperence in the late morning. The town is waving its holiday colours and an air of festive abandon drifts through the streets. First port of call is the Visitor’s Centre. Bad news (or is it good?): the national parks have been full for the past two weeks and, being Saturday, the prospects of getting a camping sight are slim. That settles that.

I take a walk through the breezy town, ending at the Jetty Café. Painted in a palate of bright colours, the old wooden building offers a laid-back atmosphere with views of the bay and a pricey menu. We order cake and coffees and sit on the lounge furniture casually placed on the patch of grass at the front of the café.

We resolve to continue westward, checking out the two national parks that line the coast to Albany. But when we stop at the turn-off for Stokes National Park for a roadside picnic, the wind is blowing a gale and camping on the coast doesn’t sound appealing.

Further west, in Ravensthorpe, we give it one last shot: can we get into the Frankland River National Park? The lady at the Visitor’s Centre doesn’t think so; because of recent rains the Department of Environment has closed most of the roads in the park to prevent the spread of dieback. It looks like fate is pushing us home.

For our last camping night, we find a brief section where the National Park touches the Coast Highway and pitch camp at the end of a dirt track with sweeping views of the park and the wheat farm that straddles it. The wind and the highway traffic die down simultaneously and we’re left with a still, quiet, cool night to end our journey.


Tea for Two at the Jetty Cafe

 Coast Highway camp at Frankland River National Park

Good morning!

Off to do Morning Meditation

Friday, January 7, 2011

Day 54: Norseman

January 7, 2011

The wind has died and the silence is all-pervasive. Not even a chorus of birds to hail the rising sun. I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and glance at my watch: 5am, W.A. time. That’s better. It was worrying me that I’d been sleeping in until 7:30 every day since arriving in South Australia.

Over breakfast we speculate about the origins of the ruins that lie around us. An old rusty gas fridge sits near a bush twenty meters away. Johan explores and finds a row of 2x1.5 meter concrete pads but there’s no evidence of building materials or household contents that could give clues about who used to live here. An old Aboriginal settlement? A turn-of-the-century mission? An abandoned station? We saw plenty of these deserted settlements in the goldfields around Kalgoorlie. Perhaps it was an old gold-mining camp? Strange about the concrete pads though; they seem too modern.

As we drive over the dilapidated fence wire back to the highway, it suddenly dawns on Johan what it could be: a settlement for the road crew that paved the road 35 years ago. In the early ‘70s, Johan and his first wife travelled across the Nullabor on a year-long trip around Australia. Three hundred kilometers of the Eyre Highway had yet to be paved and prominent signs warned travelers of the potential hazards of making a trip through such remote desert lands. In 1976 the road was paved making it the first transcontinental highway accessible to all vehicles. Last night’s camp would have been somewhere in the middle of that last section to be paved. The ten little pads could have accommodated portable dwellings for the roadworkers to retire to during the three months it took to complete the job. Sounds as good a theory as any.

Heading west again, another giant front looms on the horizon. The morning sun just slips under it, providing striking contrast between the yellow lit fields and the showering dark grey clouds above.

We stop for lunch at Balladonia, not much more than a roadhouse and caravan park. But Balladonia had its day, as told in the Cultural Heritage Museum accessed through the shop. Among its sheep station, gold-mining and cameleering history the small settlement has a singularly spectacular claim to fame: the location of the crashed Skylab space station launched by NASA in 1979. Apparently the discovery of sections of Skylab coincided with the Miss Universe contest, held in Perth that year. Spotting a good publicity stunt, the organizers had the reclaimed section of Skylab sent to Perth where it was exhibited alongside Miss USA. Unfortunately, the weight of the twisted piece of metal was so great the stage collapsed, sending Miss USA and the pinnacle of the US space program into a jumbled mess below. I guess Miss USA didn’t win Miss Universe that year.

It’s a long straight drive to Norseman, the end of the Eyre Highway across the Nullabor. We’re grumpy and hot when we pull into the ramshackle town – half the shops on main street are shut down, the other half need a face lift. We stock up on fruit and veggies after having our supply confiscated at the W.A. border quarantine station. We could drive on, south towards Esperence and find a nice bush camp. But we could also use a shower and wash our bag full of dirty laundry. We opt for the lone caravan park on the edge of town.

 The Eyre Highway has the longest straight stretch of road in Australia: 146.6 kilometers (90 miles)

Storm clouds looming

Day 52-53: Across the Nullabor

January 5-6, 2011

Wudinna requires a 150km detour off the Flinders Highway on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula -- it’s the nearest agent for the Bendigo Bank that we’re going to see before we reach home territory. We drive the 80kms inland, withdraw our cash and return via the Eyre Highway to the squeaky clean seaside town of Streaky Bay. It really is a charmer, with a stately refurbished pub, modern gourmet cafes and an expanse of clear blue water stretching to the horizon where the coastal fingers form a natural gateway to the sea. We pull out the picnic rug and enjoy a freshly cut sandwich on crusty Colton bread and luncheon meat just bought from the local IGA. A cone of Bailey’s and Almond gelato purchased from the Mocean (‘ultimate waterside dining’) café is enjoyed on bar stools overlooking the tranquil bay.

After a fuel-up in Ceduna we’re ready to head off across the Nullabor. But just on the edge of town I remind Johan that it’s his daughter’s birthday. Without hesitation, he pulls to the side of the road, grabs his mobile and rings Simone in New Zealand. On her 33rd birthday the Creedy family is moving from their home in Reefton back to Dunedin, where they first landed when Mike and Simone moved to New Zealand many years ago. Happy Birthday Simone!

Farmlands start to peter out just past Nundroo. The roadside thickets become denser as the bush begins to take over. We pull off a dirt track and find a firebreak 50 meters off the highway with sheltered areas suitable for camping. The view to the south looks across empty wheatfields that look like they haven’t been used for a while. The rumble of transcontinental freight trucks breaks the silence every few minutes throughout the long evening, then slowly fades as the night deepens.

The next morning we drive west into a massive grey front. Temperatures rise past 30˚ by late morning and the air is muggy. Spitting rain and a feisty northerly wind greet us as we pass under the dark lip of the front but it doesn’t rain hard or long enough to wet the road. Too bad -- we were hoping for a free wash for our dust and grime coated car.

The views from the lookouts in the Nullabor National Park are foreboding with the strong northerly pushing us towards the cliff edge. But the sea below is calm and clear, sheltered from the winds that slide across the abrupt end of the continent and cause ripples and swirls further out to sea.

Towards four o’clock we start to thinking about stopping for the day. But after crossing the W.A. border we forgot to account for the time change. There’s a two-and-a-half hour difference between W.A. and S.A. in the summer since W.A. voted against daylight savings time. It’s only 1:30pm!

The Hampton Tablelands rise up past Eucla and the highway parallels their prominent edge. At 3pm (W.A. time) we investigate an inconspicuous track leading off towards the hills. The road ends at a clearing where rusty cans and other debris are scattered about. We’re a few kilometers from the highway and only a hundred meters from the tablelands. While Johan sets camp I investigate the views from the top of the hills.

 First camp at start of Nullabor Plain

A vast empty plain - we didn't see any animals

The edge of the continent

Second camp on the Nullabor Plain

View across the Nullabor from the Hampton Tablelands

Bushman Johan tinkering with his electronic toys

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Day 51: Life Without an ATM

January 4, 2011

Coffin Bay National Park stretches its long leg 50kms up the shores of the Eyre Peninsula, but most of it is only accessible by 4WD track. Again, I feel torn by my instinct to explore and the growing weariness that beckons us home. We drive on the limited bitumen roads within the park to look-outs that reveal long vistas of rugged coastline to the north and undulating yellow sand dunes to the south. We opt for this more conventional tourist path instead of the more adventurous tracks with their offshoots of hiking trails. We must be getting tired.

As we head back north up the Eyre Peninsula, I suggest we work out where to get our next lot of cash to get us home. With high petrol prices and the long drive down the peninsula, our reserves are dwindling. The Bendigo Bank teller in Alice Springs gave us a list of South Australian branches, but as I run my finger down them I can’t find any along our travel route. In fact, I can’t find any Bendigo Banks until we get to Albany, some 1800kms away. I count our money while Johan figures out how much we’ll need to get us to our next banking opportunity. We’re $20 over his estimation, but that only covers fuel. What about food, caravan parks, or the potential break-down? Life without an ATM machine can be very demanding. It certainly requires a whole new way of organizing ourselves.

Perhaps my sullen mood throws a shroud over the landscape but the long brown wheat fields appear bland and vaguely annoying as we drive north. I feel cheated, hoping for something more magnificent to justify our expenditure of a tank and a half of fuel to explore the Eyre Peninsula. Was it worth the 600km detour off the main highway that will lead us home? Mostly I’m miffed that we didn’t plan better, figure out our cash requirements before we flit off into the unknown. It’s no one’s fault; we just haven’t learned yet how to live a cash-based existence.

The featureless landscape improves somewhat when stone walls appear, winding low through paddocks. There must have been a lot of Scotsmen about in the mid-19th century when these walls first appeared because that’s what it reminds me of, the Scottish countryside. Small towns, only a few houses, a church and a cemetery ringed by shady trees, come and go. The tiny town of Colton offers a tempting sign: “Fresh wood-fired bread ahead”. We stop and discover a stall next to an old sandstone house with Open signs hung across the front and sides. A menu advertises the appetizing range of bread and an information panel describes how the bread is baked to old-world standards. Behind sliding glass windows are three rows of wooden shelves holding half a dozen loaves. Just inside the window is a small unchained coin box. We deposit $3.50 for one loaf and take a round crusty multi-grain.

Just down the road a small brown sign signals the Talia Caves: Geologically Spectacular. Who could pass that up? We take a left off the main highway and follow a 5km dirt road to the coast. A well-constructed wooden stairway zigzags down the limestone cliff to long flat rocks at the water’s edge. Back into the cliff a huge cave opens up, sitting roughly underneath where our car is parked. It is indeed spectacular, formed over millennia of battering waves carving away at the soft underlying limestone. Just as alluring are the deep round rock holes full of colorful sea flora and fauna. Some are nearly two meters deep and less than a meter wide. They remind me of kaleidoscopes I loved looking into as a kid.

The first camping option is the town of Venus Bay, but the caravan park resembles a swap meet full of tents, caravans and camper trailers crammed side by side with no trees. At least there are water views for some. A further 18kms along is Port Kenny, an unassuming fishing village on the edge of Venus Bay. The rundown caravan park greets as you enter town and it looks like we’re their first customers for the night. There’s something strangely appealing about this frumpy little place, so neglected by mainstream tourism. Again, it reminds me of a coastal village in the far north of the British isles, authentic and rustic and entirely unpretentious about its natural beauty.

A dirt track across the highway from our camp takes me to the shore of the bay. At low tide, it’s an easy walk across the flat hard sand with not a soul in sight and plenty of birds to keep me entertained. Across the bay is the southern edge of the Venus Bay Conservation Park and beyond that, the town of Venus Bay where holiday makers swarm the beaches with motor boats and bikes, fishing rods and a hundred people intent on making merry. This side of the bay, it’s just me and three super-sized pelicans combing the beach.

 Roadside break shop, Colton

Talia caves and rock pools

Port Kenny caravan park

Port Kenny on Venus Bay

Pelicans at low tide

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Day 50: Bird Time

January 3, 2011

We’re indecisive, as can often happen, about what to do. The yearning to go home, lead a normal life again, pulls us west. The desire to travel, with all its perpetual change and few responsibilities, still goads us. Caught in the swirl of these mixed emotions, we head south to explore the Eyre Peninsula.

At the tip of the v-shaped peninsula are two hooks: each one declared a national park. To the east is Lincoln National Park, a popular holiday destination for Adelaidians for its boating, swimming and fishing potential. To the west is Coffin Bay National Park, described as a “wild and untamed” area of splendid natural beauty. A good drawcard for us.

We’ve now been three nights in the bush and returning to civilization is always jarring. Coffin Bay, a small bayside town at the entrance to the national park, is abuzz with holiday-makers. The many villas, motels and holiday homes that line the main road into town all advertise “no vacancy”. We intend to camp in the national park but the prospects of finding a spot are growing slim.

Surprisingly, the small campground at Yangie Bay is not yet full at mid-afternoon. After pitching camp, I take off on one of three walks that meander through the dunes and along the bay. After two-and-a-half kilometers I come upon a sign -- “The Walk Ends Here”. Undeterred, I follow tracks made by emus, kangaroos and humans further along the shoreline. The late afternoon light is shimmering on the shallow bay and water birds are everywhere. I told Johan I’d be back around six, but maybe it won’t hurt to sit for a short while.

Despite our resolve to make the journey the focus of this trip, we’re still frequently guilty of our habitual linear thinking, driving us to get somewhere, chock up the miles, go, go, go. Even when I walk, the forward momentum to reach a destination, complete a circuit or just get ample exercise keeps me from really settling into and fully experiencing a place. Now, as I sit on a flat rock, my binoculars pointed at oyster catchers, albatrosses and egrets, I feel a subtle shift away from ‘doing’ and into ‘being’.

I catch a young heron in my lenses. He’s only small but his slender grey body is attractive as it reaches up in a yoga-like stretch to a pencil-thin stature. Then suddenly he crumples, his long neck snaking into a curve, his football-shaped body like a missile ready for attack. His searing yellow eye focuses on some movement in the water. Waiting. Watching. Waiting.

But, false alarm. He stretches high again, shows off his trimness and looks around the bay with the casual indifference of an anonymous bystander. He struts along the shore, closer to where I sit captivated behind my glasses, then abruptly scrunches again, ready to strike a meal.

I don’t know how long I sit mesmerized by this sight, but eventually it occurs to me I’m in the same world as these birds inhabit, a world where time is measured by instinct rather than the perpetual drive to get things done. Yet the minute I realize it, I’m out of it, looking at my watch, worried about getting back to camp in time. The heron and his dinner dance move out of focus and I’m back in my busy mind, compelled to move on.

Beautiful coast near the tip of Eyre Peninsula, Coffin Bay National Park

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Day 49: A Cool Change

January 2, 2011

Somewhere in the night, the noise of the high wind knocking the tent about disturbing our sleep, I pull the spare blanket over me. A cool change has finally come. Flashes of light pop on the horizon and I worry about rain but none comes.

Sadly, today we leave the outback of the centre – the undisciplined wildness of the deserts of Western Australia, Northern Territories and South Australia. Port Augusta at the tip of the Spencer Gulf marks the small portion of South Australia that’s been civilized, with Adelaide, its only city, to the south.

Port Augusta also has some interesting history about the early explorers, particularly Matthew Flinders, a young English navy officer commissioned to explore the great southern continent in the late 18th century. His boat sailed up Spencer Gulf and anchored, near the mangroves where we overlook the bay and the Flinders Ranges beyond. He never lived in Australia, but the names he gave to hundreds of places along the coast have stuck. Apparently even the name “Australia” was first penned in his journals. He died at age forty, after being imprisoned by the French for six years on his return journey from Terra Australis.

Port Augusta has a festive beach town flavour on this second day of the new year. We eat lunch on the north side of the river with views of the town on the south side. Four-wheel-drives, decked out with recreational gear, towing boats, trailers and quads, begin to clog the roads. Everyone’s out for a holiday.

As we leave the town, the first sign for “Perth, Western Australia” appears. We turn west; it’s time to go home.

Mangroves on Spencer Gulf near Port Augusta, South Australia

 Camp near Lock on the Eyre Peninsula

Sultan of chic...

Day 48: Happy New Year!

January 1, 2011

The reports on the ABC radio give graphic details of what’s going on in Queensland: rivers peaking at over nine meters; thousands of homes and businesses flooded; thousands more in danger; mass evacuations; helicopters airlifting emergency food supplies; even the possibility of a cyclone for New Years. Family from Europe and America email to find out if we’re OK; their news reports are telling of record rains in Queensland and a natural disaster costing in the billions. Our reports reel off familiar towns now in danger: Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Emerald – we passed through them all the week before Christmas. Our mad attempt to escape from the unpalatable task of camping in the rain now seems like a flight from peril, a virtual tsunami of wet.

But now there’s a new peril: a heatstorm in South Australia. Even Adelaide in the far south clocked up 41˚ for New Year’s Eve day. Our car thermometer sits on a steady 43˚ the entire day. We stop for lunch in Coober Pedy hoping for a cool restaurant to save us from the unappetizing prospect of a picnic at high noon in this treeless town. But it’s New Year’s Day and the streets of Coober are quiet, all except one pizza restaurant with a neon sign flashing “Happy New Year!” and an Open sign in their window. Pizza on a sweaty day doesn’t sound appealing but maybe they have something else on the menu.

The fans are swirling hot air over the smattering of guests seated at the tables. Either the air conditioner is failing in its bid to defeat the day’s heat or the manager can’t afford holiday wages for his staff plus a hefty electricity bill trying to cool his customers. We order an ice-cold tropical smoothie, a garden salad and a chicken yiros (a Greek wrap). Halfway through the smoothie, our bodies have cooled sufficiently to enjoy lunch.

The vast salt pans of South Australia begin to appear again late in the day. It’s been four weeks since we camped at Lake Eyre and waded in the ankle deep water, but these smaller lakes further south are dry. We set camp at Lake Hart, an oval shaped dry lake a hundred kilometers north of Port Augusta. We eat a hasty cold fruit and yoghurt dinner before I set out for a walk across the salt pan. Unlike Lake Eyre, the shorelines are visible in every direction so there’s no chance of getting disoriented. I keep my eye on my target – a flat topped mesa a couple kilometers to the northwest – and on my starting point – a huge pile of gravel near the railway tracks next to our camp.

There’s something disconcerting about standing in the middle of a dry lake, the shoreline a kilometer or more away in every direction. There’s a gut-dropping sense of vulnerability, like bobbing in a row boat in the middle of the ocean, or traversing a vast open plain of snow or sand with nothing but yourself to rely on. As the sun starts to set, sending my thin shadow sprawling across the empty whiteness and the clouds above ablaze with peach and orange, I feel like Julie Andrews on her mountain, arms flung wide, twirling around in ecstasy at the sight of so much natural wonder.

Shimmering mirages dance on the hot highway

Sunset on Lake Hart